Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

US Navy: Chinese Destroyer Targeted P-8A Aircraft With Laser

The US Navy claims that a Chinese warship fired a military grade laser at P-8 surveillance aircraft last week while it was flying over the Pacific Ocean.

Franz-Stefan Gady
US Navy: Chinese Destroyer Targeted P-8A Aircraft With Laser
Credit: Boeing Company

A U.S. Navy Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) was purportedly targeted with a military grade laser by a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) destroyer while it was flying over the Pacific Ocean near Guam on February 17, the service revealed yesterday.

The U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon was conducting routine operations on February 17 about 610 kilometers west of Guam in the Philippine Sea when the incident occurred, a U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesperson told the Navy Times on February 27.

“The P-8A was operating in international airspace in accordance with international rules and regulations,” the U.S. Navy said in a statement yesterday accusing the PLAN warship of “unsafe and unprofessional” actions. 

According to the U.S. Navy, the  PLAN warship’s actions are a violation of a naval protocol known as the code for unplanned encounters at sea (CUES), which was ratified at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium to prevent naval incidents from escalating.

“CUES specifically addresses the use of lasers that could cause harm to personnel or damage to equipment,” said the Navy. “Weapons-grade lasers could potentially cause serious harm to aircrew and mariners, as well as ship and aircraft systems.”

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The action of the PLAN destroyer also violates a 2014 memorandum of understanding regarding rules of behavior for safety of air and maritime encounters, the Navy said.

The service also added that the laser could not be seen by the naked eye, but was detected by the P-8As sensors. The P-8A involved in the February 17 action  is assigned to the U.S. Navy’sPatrol Squadron 45 (VP-45) and operates out of the Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan.

The PLAN warship involved with pennant number 161 is the 7,500-tonne Luyang III (Type 052D)-class guided-missile destroyer, Hohhot, which  joined the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet in 2019. 

Type 052D surface combatants are multipurpose surface combatants and can be deployed for a variety of tasks including anti-air, anti-surface, and anti-submarine warfare operations. I previously explained the Type 052D’s combat systems:

A Type 052D Luyang III-class destroyer is equipped with 64 vertical launch cells, each capable of carrying one to four missiles. The ship carries one of the PLAN’s deadliest anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), the vertically-launched YJ-18 ASCM. Next to its YJ-18 arsenal, Type 052D guided-missile destroyers are also equipped with modern HQ-9 surface-to-air-missiles (SAM).

The Navy did not specify the Chinese laser system purportedly used against the U.S. aircraft in the February 17 incident. Notably in April 2018, PLA personnel at a military base in Djibouti also deployed lasers to target U.S. military aircraft. 

A formal diplomatic protest known as a démarche is expected to be issued by the U.S. government, according to CNN.

“U.S Navy aircraft routinely fly in the Philippine Sea and have done so for many years. U.S. Navy aircraft and ships will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” the Navy added.